Mother Lode could be an opportunity lost
Depending on your frame of mind, Referendum 2E, the city of Aspen question regarding purchase of the Mother Lode restaurant, is a no-brainer.
For some, the thought of spending $3.5 million on a piece of property with no plan whatsoever for how the land will be used is downright stupid. It’s putting the cart before the horse and an example of government overspending at its worst.
For others, it’s a golden opportunity that could be lost forever to private development. There are a hundred different possibilities that could turn one of the most important corners in the middle of downtown Aspen into a cultural mecca.
Both sides are correct, in their own way. But one aspect to this question makes the decision easier. The city has the money, through the Real Estate Transfer Tax, to make the purchase. It can generate money from the property while citizens debate its future, and it would most likely get all of its money back should it be decided the lot serves no valuable public service.
The Mother Lode, long an Aspen institution, sits just down the block from the Wheeler Opera House. A lot between the two buildings is owned by the city, but has been left mostly vacant.
When restaurant owners Howard Ross and Gordon Whitmer asked the city if it was interested in purchasing the site and business earlier this year, City Council members voted 4-1 in favor of putting the property under contract. Now they want the blessing of the voters before closing the deal.
It’s hard to argue with the lone dissenter, Tim Semrau, that spending that amount of money on a piece of property without a plan seems a bit silly. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue with fellow Council Member Rachel Richards that owning 12,000 square feet next to the Wheeler Opera House gives the city the potential to build a first-class arts and cultural center in the heart of Aspen.
Just exactly what would be included in the “arts center” is certainly unknown. In fact, it’s highly possible the Wheeler serves us just fine and there is no need for additional space dedicated to the arts in that part of town. But if the Mother Lode is sold to another buyer, that site is gone forever, as is the opportunity to answer those important questions.
Nonprofits, our various arts and cultural groups, and the population in general should be allowed the opportunity to discuss the potential of the site. In the meantime, the city can lease the restaurant to another operator, as it does with Bentley’s in the Wheeler building, and collect rent while that discussion is taking place.
In supporting this measure, however, we must be clear that if the city is given the green light to buy the property it must move forward immediately in planning its future. A yes vote by the people is a clear indication that they want to see the possibilities debated and a decision made on whether or not this is the proper place for such a center.
And if it becomes clear the property is better suited for a restaurant or some other sort of commercial enterprise, then the city should put it back on the market, with proceeds from its sale put back into the Wheeler fund to be used elsewhere.
Vote yes on Referendum 2E.
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